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I'm not a nice guy...

My eyes snagged on the sway of her hips as she walked away from me. Could I fix up her precious van within the confines of her budget?


I appreciated a woman who loved her vehicle and wanted to fix it, despite the odds. I wanted to help her, but I wasn’t in the business of taking on pro bono work.


Most people who restored antique vehicles had money to burn. I didn’t get that impression from Lily. She seemed to be barely holding herself together as she talked to me.


It was obvious she loved her grandmother and her van. She was sentimental and emotional. Things I usually avoided in a woman. I saw the way she steeled herself against my judgment the second her eyes lightened as she tried to stay optimistic. I wasn’t sure what that was in this situation. If she didn’t have the money for the van’s upkeep, there was no point in sinking money into her.


We’d see what her decision was once she saw the estimate. I headed inside where Ryan said, “You get her sorted?”


I grunted. “She wants that van running, but I don’t think she can afford the kind of work it needs.”


Ryan’s brow furrowed. “That sucks. She’d be a beauty if we restored her.”


Pleasure coursed through my body at the thought. I loved a good challenge, bringing a vehicle back to life. “We’re not in the business of taking on charity cases.”


“She really doesn’t have money to do it?” Ryan asked, tapping his finger on the counter that ran along the front of the garage. The shelf was a catchall for paperwork, tools, and small parts.


“She wouldn’t tell me her budget.” But that woman had been surprising me since day one. The fierce way she held herself together on the side of the highway when we met. How she’d shown up here for answers. Most women were intimidated by mechanics and garages. We worked hard to diffuse that perception, but she couldn’t have known that when she showed up today.


I admired the hell out of her. Not that I’d let on. Lily might have been beautiful, but she wasn’t my type. Under her positive outlook and dresses, she was a nice girl. She was probably from a nice, supportive family. I’d crush her, and she didn’t deserve that.


Ryan’s brow furrowed. “Maybe there’s some way we could help. She owns Petals.”


“What’s that?” I asked, confused.


He threw a thumb over his shoulder, gesturing toward the historic area. “The new florist shop on Main.”


“What’s your point?” I remembered her saying something about flower deliveries, but I was itching to get back under the Mustang.


“Doesn’t she transport the flowers for the wedding planning company? Weddings Ever After or something like that?”


“Happily Ever Afters.” That was something I remembered from our conversations.


Ryan snapped his fingers. “That’s it. It could be great publicity for both of us. The newspaper has been following the local shops for months. There was an article about the competing coffee shops and how the owners grew up on the same street and had rival lemonade stands.”


I shot him a disbelieving look. “You’re saying it would make for a great fluff piece in the lifestyle section or some bullshit.”


Ryan let out a breath. “What have we been trying to do?”


I knew what he was getting at. Grudgingly, I admitted, “Make ourselves accessible to people. Be less intimidating. Appeal to everyone.”


He nodded. “Exactly. This could do it.”


I frowned. “I don’t know how the garage partnering with a flower shop would be good for business.”


“It could be great for our reputation and the business.” Ryan shook his head. “You gotta think outside the box sometimes.”


The idea of a garage partnering with a flower shop was ridiculous. There was no customer crossover. It was just as ludicrous as me being attracted to her. I looked down at my grease-covered hands as I recalled Lily’s floral scent. She probably surrounded herself with flowers.


“You have to think of yourself as a respected business owner. Your past doesn’t follow you.”


“Doesn’t it?” I’m sure everyone in town remembered that my mother dropped me and my sister, Hailey, off on my nana’s porch and left. Nana did her best to raise us, but she relied on neighbors’ charity and donations for our clothes and winter jackets.


Ryan backed away slowly, his palms in the air. “Just think about it.”


We’d needed a receptionist for months, but I’d resisted. Hailey suggested we renovate the waiting room, but I didn’t see the value in it. I wanted to do good work, but how comfortable the waiting room was, or whether someone was always available to answer the phone, didn’t register for me.


When I placed the ad for an employee, I felt like an imposter. Like I was filling someone else’s shoes and doing a terrible job.


No matter how good business at the garage was, I worried it wouldn’t last. How could it when I’d always been told I wouldn’t amount to anything?


I slid under the Mustang and got back to work. The familiar tasks soothed me. By the time I was done, I could see what Ryan was getting at. It would be good for the garage to help out a local shop owner, but was that the reputation I wanted? It felt a little like selling out.


We were doing a good deed to get a reporter’s attention. In school, I did the opposite. I did things to shock the teacher and principal. Eventually, I just did what was expected. It was easier that way.


We’d joined the local shop owners’ meetings, but Ryan was usually the one who attended. We occasionally partnered with the other owners for raffle items or coupons during town events, but this was bigger than that.


I wasn’t sure I was ready for the attention. I liked working behind the scenes. I didn’t want to talk to reporters or be known as the nice guy. Not that I could ever be considered that. I was positive Lily thought I was a grumpy asshole, and I was fine with that.


I was still the troublemaker. The no-good kid who wouldn’t amount to anything. It was crazy to think I could be anything else.


Why else would my mother leave me on my grandmother’s porch at twelve without looking back? At the time, I was more worried about my younger sister, Hailey. But the message cut deep. I wasn’t good enough for my own mother. If she could abandon me so easily, I was a lost cause.


Ryan wanted the impossible. He wanted the community to respect me. They might, as the owner of the garage, but I couldn’t get too far ahead of myself, thinking I could be more.


I’d been putting off taking a look at Lily’s van, but I couldn’t anymore. Maybe it would be best to get it done and off my lot. Then I wouldn’t have the owner showing up to check on the progress. Satisfied I was on the right track, I entered the information about the Mustang into our new computer system Ryan hired someone to install, then I headed outside to look at the van.


The sky was gray, and there was a light drizzle. The keys were already in the van. A peace symbol was attached to the key itself, which fit perfectly with the hippie vibe of both the van and Lily.


I moved the old van into the garage, a weird sensation filling my chest. I was doing what Lily wanted. That shouldn’t matter to me, but it did. I wanted to erase the lines on her forehead, ease her stress. I could relate to someone who wanted to restore an antique vehicle. So many wanted the newest vehicle, with all the bells and whistles.


I checked for common issues to start. Camper vans were known for broken wiring and loose spark plugs if they weren’t taken care of properly. I had a feeling Lily was reactive when it came to her van. She didn’t know how to properly maintain it, or she merely couldn’t afford to.


I figured out the main issue quickly but decided to do a full assessment so Lily knew what she was getting into. I’d create a maintenance plan for her so she understood what was involved. Then she could decide if she wanted to maintain it or call me every time she needed a tow.


Something sparked in my chest at the idea of her needing me. I didn’t like her stranded on the side of the road, but I liked her calling me when it happened. It was completely fucked-up. I needed to get my head on straight.


I ordered the parts to get the van running again, and a few others that looked like they might go soon. I liked to anticipate clients’ needs.


It was something I’d do for any client. She could go somewhere else, but I had a feeling she’d feel confident in my work. She’d trust me—at least with her van.


***


Over the next few days, I prepared an estimate and fixed Lily’s vehicle. I should have discussed it with her, but I didn’t trust myself around her. I figured the less contact, the better.


I was energized, thinking about the possibilities. I could just see her driving around town with the van, not worrying about it breaking down.


I washed the vehicle, thinking the vintage baby blue van suited her. It was as bohemian as she was. It was her, and I wanted the opportunity to restore it. But I didn’t get my hopes up. Few clients wanted to sink cash into a money pit.


I’d left a message for Lily earlier, telling her the van was ready for whenever she needed it. Then I got lost in another client’s vehicle.


“I thought you were going to call to go over the estimate with me,” a familiar voice came from somewhere above me.


I pushed out from under the car to find a booted foot tapping on the concrete.


I took my time to stand, wiping my hands on a nearby rag. “I said I’d call, didn’t I?”


Lily tipped her head to the side, her arms already crossed over her chest. She wore a dress that skimmed the floor with a cardigan that was slipping off her shoulders. “Yes. You did.”


I winced at her tone. She was right in this case. I should have called. It wasn’t good customer service, but then I wasn’t known for communication.


“It was a simple fix. I didn’t think you’d have an issue with the cost.”


Her eyes widened even further. “Are you in the practice of not advising your clients about the costs before you do the work?”


I shook my head. “I’m not. Like I said, it was a simple fix. If you have an issue with the bill, I’ll cover it.”


Lily looked like she wanted to continue, but she stopped. “You will?”


“I screwed up. I don’t want to get a reputation for not listening to clients. Our intent is to make women—people—feel comfortable here.”


“It is?”


“We’re aware that some women feel uncomfortable going to garages. I don’t want to exacerbate that. I don’t want you to think I wasn’t listening. We want to be different, and I fucked up. I’m sorry.” The fact was, I didn’t trust myself to call her. I tended to be an ass where she was concerned. Considering my attraction to her, I thought it was best to create distance.


Her mouth dropped open slightly, then closed, like she didn’t know what to make of me. “I don’t know what to say.”


“Thank you works.”


A flush traveled from her neck up her cheeks as she shook her head. “Of course. Thank you. I just didn’t expect that.”


“You didn’t expect an apology?”


She waved a hand at me. “You’ve been a little testy every time I’ve been in your presence.”


My jaw tightened. “I’m not a nice guy. Ryan’s the people person.”


Lily smiled widely, and my heart sped up in response. It was clear my words weren’t hitting how I wanted them to. I intended them to be a warning, but instead of deterring her, she seemed to relax.


“What was the problem?” Lily asked, wandering over to her van that sat just outside the bay window facing the street.


“You had a faulty distributor cap, which means your spark plugs weren’t working. It took a few days to get the part, but other than that, it was an easy fix.”


Lily opened the driver’s side door. “You cleaned it?”


I shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable with her scrutiny. “I washed the outside. Detailed the inside. It’s standard procedure.”


A car wash was. Cleaning the inside? Not so much. I’d done that for her. Because I’m an idiot, and something about her love for her van got to me. I had a feeling she wouldn’t be restoring it anytime soon, and I wanted to do something to make it better for her.

“This is more than I expected.”


Something twisted inside of me. Was that because no one gave her special treatment, or was it because she didn’t expect me to be nice to her?


She easily climbed inside and settled on the cracked leather seat.


“She’d be a beauty if you’d let me fix her up.” I wasn’t ready to tell her about Ryan’s idea yet. It was a good one, but it would require me to work closely with her to make sure it was preserved exactly how she wanted it.


When I saw her waiting for me, the determination in her eyes, the tilt of her head, I couldn’t do it. I needed space from her.


She ran a hand over the steering wheel. “I’m sure Berta would love that too, but I doubt it’s in the budget.”


It was what I’d expected and wanted, but I was still disappointed. There was so much I could do for her van.


“I wrote up an estimate for it.” I pulled the folded-up estimate out of my back pocket and smoothed it before handing it to her.


Her brow furrowed as she read down the extensive list. “This is—I can’t—I just opened my business. I’m trying to keep my head above water.”


I sighed. “I just wanted you to have all the information.”


She held up the paper. “This is really sweet of you.”


Sweet? I didn’t think anyone had ever called me that. Not even Hailey, and I’d been somewhat of a father figure to her since she was six.


“Just so you’re aware. These vans have faulty wiring and spark plug issues, so this won’t be the only time it breaks down on you.” I stepped back to take a look at the body. “There’s also the issue of rust.”


She winced as she slid off the seat. “I know.”


“Take a look at the list and let me know if I can do a few things on there. I don’t feel right with you driving this on the highway.”


She wrapped her arms around herself as if she were cold. “I can take care of myself, Jake.”


Her saying my name made my heart do a weird flutter in my chest.


“I’m not saying you can’t. I just want you to be aware of everything. I’m not trying to convince you to do something you don’t need. We don’t play those games here.”


Lily smiled softly. “I don’t think you’re trying to do those things.”


For some strange reason, relief coursed through me. Why did I care so much about what this woman thought of me?


Lily lifted the estimate in the air. “I’ll take a closer look at it and get back to you.”


“Good. That’s good.” It wasn’t a no, and I wasn’t sure why I was so relieved by that. I didn’t want to see her again. It wasn’t a good idea. But at the same time, I wanted to know she was riding around in a reliable car.


She looked at me tentatively. “Can I pay you for the work you did?”


“I said I’d take care of it.” My words came out gruffer than I intended.


“If it’s all the same to you, I’d feel better if I paid for it. I appreciate you wanting to take care of it, though.”


Deciding that arguing with her wouldn’t go over well, I gestured toward the garage. “Come on in. Maisy can get help you get the bill settled.”


I headed into the waiting area and stopped in front of the reception desk.


When Maisy looked up at my approach, I said, “Can you get Lily’s bill ready?”


“Sure can, boss.” Then Maisy smiled at Lily before turning her attention to her computer.


I tried to keep my tone professional. “Give me a call if I can do the other work we talked about.”


Lily smiled and reached a hand out to cover mine. “I will. Thank you so much for fixing Berta.”


“You’re welcome,” I said before walking away. The words felt like sandpaper on my dry throat. I tried not to think about how warm her hand felt covering mine. How good it felt to have another person touch me. And it wasn’t just anyone; it was Lily. I’d never had a reaction to a female quite like this before. Sure, they were a good time, and I enjoyed their company, but I never felt the need to create distance from someone. No one had ever threatened my solitary existence.


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